Sitting in that auto with my mother and sister on either side of me, I spotted him today, the red light man. He was holding this wooden board with those obnoxious little wobbly flowers that everyone seems to love to perch on their dashboards nowadays. And then he passed out of my line of vision.
I had just found my portkey to time travel. I flew back to a time some twelve years ago, when school was about silly games like ‘lock- and-key’ and ‘ghost-in-the-graveyard’, and children running out of grey metal gates towards the waiting cool of an air conditioned car. I plonked myself in the front seat and turned on the radio, 102.6 FM, the only one we had back then. At the Ashram red light, my face lit up as I saw the nice, knobbly old man selling magazines. Like always, he came right up to our window and made faces at me. I laughed, rolled down my window and shook his hand, and told him that I was going home from school. Then the lights changed and I waved my byes to him.
Dissolve. That memory and the picture dissolved.
Cut to seven years later. For whatever reasons, time, etc, I hadn’t seen the red light man in many years. A little part of me, at the odd time, fearing the worst, prayed for him, and with all my heart I wished him luck and happiness. Then one day, at the Ashram red light again, I saw him. My heart jumped, an initial yelp of joy. But by then, my mind had undergone a certain mental conditioning, as the initial yelp was muffled under observation, apprehension and hesitation.
How old he had grown, his jaw stuck out, the teeth were missing. My heart went out to him. He was selling water bottles, from car to car, in the blistering heat. I half wanted him to come to my window and half not, not knowing how I would react. It had been so long, I felt a sense of having betrayed him (and my childish innocence) and moved on.
He stopped at my window.
I looked at him, with a deadpan expression, trying to silence the little girl who wanted to scream, “it’s me! From back then! Do you remember?”
Our eyes met over my clenched jaw, he held my gaze for a fleeting moment and I thought I saw a flicker of recognition. My lips almost turned upward and I was on the verge of flashing him a beaming smile, when he turned away.
He turned and went to the next car. My heart sank.
Why in that fleeting moment, did I feel that he waited for me to meet him halfway? Why was I so reserved? Because he was a man at a red light and I was a young girl in a car? I felt a deep sense of shame, an innate repulsion for myself.
Today, I sat in the auto, and saw him again... feeble and bent with age, yet resilient, selling his wares from car to car, a life force that refused to give up. And I felt nothing except respect for this man. No desire to try to appeal to his memory, nothing. I asked my sister if she remembered him, (I don’t even know his name); she said she was surprised because she was thinking about him too.
Perhaps he was like this with all the children he met at red lights. Perhaps they’d openly recognize him till date. Not like me.
Would he remember me? Perhaps not. And why should he? I was nothing and am nothing special.
But I will remember him. Him in the sponsored T-shirt of whichever company was paying him. He who embraced the harshness of life and entertained little children.
That knobbly faced smile that knew no boundaries.
The Red Light Man who made faces at an uncorrupted me.